As another London club closes, Amsterdam shows why we need a “night mayor”

A DJ at work – albeit in Singapore, not Amsterdam or London. Image: Getty.

If you like going dancing in London, you’ve probably heard the bad news already. Dance Tunnel, the intimate Dalston club that has hosted DJs like Prosumer, Tama Sumo and Ben UFO, will close in August.

In an announcement on Facebook, the club said that “the licensing climate in Hackney has made it impossible for us to get the hours we need to make Dance Tunnel sustainable in the long term”.

Their problem is that te club fills up at midnight, and its license only extends to 3am – and three hours of bar take isn’t paying the bills. (The door money usually goes to outside promoters.) A 5am license would allow it to earn enough to continue; but aside from occasionally using Temporary Event Notices (TENs), which are difficult to come by in Dalston’s Special Policy Area, that’s just not going to happen.

At first glance, this seems like a cut-and-dried case of a local council putting their foot down on a thriving, well-regulated business that brings worldwide renown to their borough, whilst paying business rates and employing young people. But it might not be as simple as that: Hackney council released its own statement, defending the decision and noting that Dance Tunnel “has not applied to extend their opening hours for over two years”.

The club then issued another statement, in which it said that its “future lies elsewhere” – and that it would “look further afield to find a space where we are subject to fewer compromises”. So it looks like they’ve decided to pick another battle – or at least another battlefield.

Dance Tunnel is just a 200-capacity venue – but news of its closure was trending on Twitter within hours and was even covered by the BBC. More is at stake here than just a few clubbers’ good times (though one wonders where Hackney Council thinks these people will go, if they keep losing legal venues to party in). The recent spate of club closures are an attack on exactly the kind of entrepreneurship London should be encouraging.

One possible solution to the problem – one the mayor’s office got behind late last year, via a recommendation by the Music Venues Taskforce – is to create a “nightlife champion”. This could be an individual (a “night mayor”); or a committee, like the Club Commission at work in Berlin.

Alan Miller is chair of the Night Time Industry Association (NTIA), a lobbying group established last year. He argues that such a group could “act as a conduit between business and policymakers, and understand the cultural ramifications, as well as the economic benefits, of what happens in nightlife.

“There’s a big gap of understanding in Britain and especially in London about the cultural, economic and social benefits of nightlife,” he continues. “It’s not only about national insurance, business rates, employment and generating 6 per cent of Britain’s GDP – I’m talking about ourselves as a brand, how we find artists like Adele and Tinie Tempah and Mark Ronson, but also somewhere people get inspired by new fashion trends, art, or by tech.”

In Amsterdam, night mayor Mirik Milan – formery a club promoter of 10 years’ standing – has been in office since 2012 (the year Dance Tunnel opened). He heads an independent, non-profit foundation, whose job is to ensure the city’s nightlife remains dynamic. Last year, he told Time Out what that means:

“We try to build bridges between the mayor and city council, small business owners like nightclubs, venues and promoters and city residents. Nightlife is a world which is difficult to penetrate, and I always say: ‘How can you maintain a culture if you don’t have any clue what’s going on?’”

Milan’s biggest success has been the introduction of 24-hour licenses – for example at De School, the new venue from the group behind Trouw, which closed last year. As he told Time Out, “Clubs benefit from it because they can go on longer, and the surrounding neighbourhood benefits because it’s not like at four in the morning a thousand people suddenly hit the street, all at once.”

Amsterdam’s new 24-hour venues are mainly out of town – unlike London’s venues, which often exist in increasingly residential neighbourhoods. (The Music Venues Trust has recently won a big legislative victory here.)


But the Dutch example can still be of relevance. Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein, an area which Milan likens to Leicester Square, is now part of a three-year pilot project to reduce the 300 odd violent incidents that were formerly reported each year. This involves taking an approach more like running a music festival: “There you’ll have, like, 20,000 people,” Milan told the Guardian last month. “Maybe two get pick-pocketed, and there’s one fight. It’s because you have easy-on, easy-off access, clear routes around the site, a programme and rules that everyone knows and understands, soft security … Basically, a pleasant environment.”In other words, Amsterdam treats nightlife destinations as events – and the people in them as informed participants, not potential criminals.

The mayor’s Night Time Commission is still looking into what can be done to save London’s battered but unbowed night time culture. It’s due to report its findings in the autumn, after a six-month study that was announced in March.

Those findings can’t come soon enough. As Miles Simpson – promoter of Thunder, one of Dance Tunnel’s most popular events – points out, just because there aren’t legal parties on offer, that doesn’t mean that people will just go home quietly.

Venues like Dance Tunnel are “professionally run by people dedicated to delivering a high quality and safe environment where people can enjoy themselves,” he says. But legal restrictions mean they are getting “squeezed out of existence, leaving people to party in dangerous, unlicensed firetraps, in shop basements and disused warehouses.

“It’s a sad loss to London nightlife, but it certainly isn’t the first in recent times,” he adds. “And I fear it won’t be the last either.”

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

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Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.